Though in the common American historical narrative concerning the African American experience, African Americans are commonly represented as tacit subordinates to a systemized form of national and local oppression in the form of White governments and White enterprises, there is a long history of African American violent resistance that generally goes under-documented. Specifically, author Lance Hill discusses in his book “Deacons for Defense: Armed Resistance and the Civil Rights Movement” of a phenomenon he calls “the myth of nonviolence.” Ever since the slave revolts of Nat Turner and John Brown, there has been a rather consistent history of African American resistance to inequality and maltreatment in the history of the United States. However, never were these efforts so organized and self-derived as in the defense communities that began to form around the time of the civil rights era. The Deacons of Defense, for example, was a type of self-styled militia formed in Jonesboro, Louisiana in 1964 by local Blacks as a form of protection against the Ku Klux Klan. Largely consisting of working class Blacks that professed the right and need for Blacks to arm themselves, the Deacons for Defense not only clashed with the Klan and other White terrorist groups based on their racist proclamations, but also clashed with Middle class Black communities that they saw as not doing enough to fight for reform and self-defense.
The peaceable non-violent demonstrations largely held by White supporters of black rights were sometimes viewed by the more militant black communities are simply “patronizing” to the African American sense of individualism. Why do Blacks need other Whites to help them fight for their own rights? It was this mindset that sparked the creation of numerous more morally-questionable organizations such as the Black Panthers or the Nation of Islam. The Black Panther Party, in fact, formed in 1966, originally called the Black Panther Party for Self Defense, was the largest African American revolutionary organization to have ever existed. The Black Panthers were vocal about their support of the 2nd amendment right as it extended to the black community, and adamantly demonstrated their willingness to fight against police brutality with equal brutality. The Black Panther Party was unique in its aspirations, which were sometimes considered a more radical stance than those espoused by the Martin Luther King supporters.
While the mainstream of the Civil Rights movement African Americans simply wished for egalitarianism for the average African American citizen of the United States, equal protection in the eyes of the law, the Black Panthers sought near out-right separatism, and the ability to engage in the natural law of self-determination that has been so vitally heralded internationally since World War I. Black Panthers sought the ability for blacks to govern themselves, enfranchise themselves, and conduct themselves as separate identities from the White American. Akinyele Omowal Umoja, in fact, argues in his book “We Will Shoot Back: Armed Resistance in the Mississippi Freedom Movement” that those more militant resistances fighting for civil rights were the ones more largely responsible for the dismantling of segregation. Umoja’s argument is that the sense of empowerment that many African Americans that joined these resistances felt was what helped them to develop a sense of sense and solidarity against a regime that largely used fear and intimidation tactics to keep “the black man down.” The idea of “meeting violence with violence” spoke the truest truth about equality than any pacifist resistance could ever do. To truly be seen as equals, African Americans, according to Umoja, have to present themselves as equally capable of defending themselves as the White man is of defending himself. This idea that white supporters of the civil rights movements are “infantilizing” the average African American is not of new origin. Decades prior, Booker T. Washington sought a sort of combination of the “self-deterministic” ideal with the “passive resistance” one, not seeing them as mutually exclusive. Washington argued that African Americans are wasting time fighting for civil rights because they have no “proven” themselves, and the best way to prove themselves is to develop their own economies, their own businesses and administrations, so as to fight alleged oppression by simply separating themselves from it and showing the oppressors that they are equally as capable as them to manage and maintain a peaceful and progressive society. Washington viewed fighting as meaningless and a waste of time and resources for the black man.
Some armed resistance movements had less clearly-defined ideals, and seemed to stem from disillusionment more than from active goal-setting in mind. The Nation of Islam, which seemed to eat itself from the inside, is perhaps the best example of the type of movement that found itself going far too deep “down the rabbit hole.” Perhaps one of the leading figures of a more militant approach to the civil rights issues of the 1960s was Robert F. Williams, a self-proclaimed black nationalist who fought to establish a charter of the National Rifle Association in the South for blacks to be able to maintain their property and protect their lives from those who sought them harm. Williams was eventually charged with the kidnapping of a white couple, which was later claimed to be a “trumped-up” charge, and was essentially exiled from the United States. His book, “Negroes with Guns,” however would be considered a sort of bible for the militant black movements to follow.
- Hill, L. (2004). The Deacons for Defense. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.
- Umoja, A. (2013). We will shoot back. New York: New York University Press.
- Williams, R. (1998). Negroes with guns. Detroit: Wayne State University Press.